Cold Weather Can Be Major Threat to Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers
“Don’t start before April 1st unless you have great ability or extensive training in dealing with cold weather.” That is the advice I routinely give aspiring Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hikers. I would like to add that Appalachian Trail thru-hikers need to have their ‘game face’ on from the beginning. Because the toughest two states on the AT are the last two–New Hampshire and Maine. But the next most difficult are the first two–Georgia and North Carolina (and parts of Tennnesse).
Whether you begin a few weeks before, or a few weeks after April 1st, the forest will still be dormant. Thus, when the inevitable bad weather occurs, there will be little in the way of tree cover to protect you. Of course, everybody expects cold weather at those elevations in the spring. In the daytime, your body temperature stays up from so much exertion. In the evening, you have the comfort of your sleeping bad, and either tent or shelter. But if you talk with former thru-hikers, almost all of them have ‘tales to tell’.
Because of the cold weather you will confront that critical first month, there are bound to be a couple days or evenings in which it can be dangerously cold. Of course, this also means wet, which can lead to the ‘Big H’. What can you do? In Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, I tell the story of my fourth day on the trail. I tried to walk 20 miles from Neel’s Gap to Unicoi Gap in north Georgia. Besides being steep, the trail became steeper and steeper, the rain reached gale force, and visibility diminished to almost nothing. First I became cold and wet, then paranoiad. I was urinating approximately every 15 minutes, which meant my body had lost its ability to hold fluids. And finally, after walking for hours straight in the storm, I became dizzy. I tried to take a break in the middle of the trail and wrap my tarp around my body. But the wind and rain lashed me. Fearful of my life, I abandoned my backpack into the bushes. Finally, just before dark I was able to get to a road and hitchhike into Helen, Georgia. Obviously that was a rookie mistake of epic proportions. What should I have done on that day to avoid getting myself into such danger.
The shelters are your ‘ace in the hole’ on the AT. They are ramshackle and bare, to be sure. But they can save you a lot of trouble, and maybe even your life. Just a few years after the above incident, I got into a major storm in the Smokies, which is the very highest part of the AT. Rather than continuing on into even worse weather at higher elevations, I decided to wait it all out at a shelter. In fact, for the first time in my life, I took a ‘zero day’ at a shelter. In other words, I spent an entire day and second evening at that shelter. Yeah, I was bored and miserable; but it probably saved me from another bout of hypothermia. And you use tons of energy trying to hike in weather like that.
The bottom line is this–cold and wet can be outright dangerous. The AT has a three-sided shelter on average every nine miles. If in doubt, hunker down in there. Again, you won’t be thrilled by it all. But you will be safe. It’s easy to become ‘mileage greedy’. But there will be plenty of time between Georgia and Maine to make up the miles missed that day.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. He is also the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail. Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a book on the subject of height.